This is a short story that was inspired by this post over at Really Bad Eggs.I, Giancarlo, had never before been on such a ship. The waves rocked her at a fever pitch, for the shallows of Cabrita are not friendly. In this case I had been hired by the Portuguese scoundrel Marquês das Minas, João de Sousa, to travel aboard the little flotilla headed to Gibraltar to break the floating siege that had ringed the southern bay of the Rock. The French were trying to drive out the Allies and prevent them from using Gibraltar as a port of call. I, of course, had no dog in this fight until the Marquês approached me in Lisbon. I was down on my luck and had nearly spent every last rei that I had, so of course I agreed.
Admiral Leake (an unfortunately named Englishman!) took me aboard with no question when he learned of my provenance, particularly what I had done during the Battle of Cremona. Through no ideological commitment of my own (you should know by now that my only ideology is to eat and have a place to call a bed at night) I had been one of the men who infiltrated the French garrison alongside that infamous prince, Eugene.
He agreed to have me on there, on the spot, and his ships were already preparing to leave. The combined might of the French and Spanish fleets were opposing us, I learned, but only once I was aboard and the familiar coastline of Portugal was dwindling in the night. The sea-spray came over the gunnels with force and, I must admit, I was heaved to and fro like a child's doll when the gale began.
I never saw the man who I insulted, or at least never in daylight. His name, I later learned, was Leopold. A good strong Hapsburg name, which is why I instantly took a dislike to him—that, and the blow he dealt me! For too long the Alps have been a stepping stool to greatness. Those damned Prussians, Bohemians, Austrians, Hungarians, the whole lot of Germanic barbarians have killed my countrymen to prove they were superior for a thousand years. When it comes to it, so had the French. They are all, in my book, illiterate barbarians pounding at the gates of Rome.
But never mind that, for I did not insult good Leopold with any purpose! It was purely a mistake, for I, as you know, frequently swear by the names of the Holy Roman Emperors. Despising them as I do, I never ask God to damn the unfeeling forces of nature. And so, when I am caught in a storm or find myself down on my luck I do not shout to God for him to curse the weather! No indeed, I spit the names of the Frankish emperors and with them I tend to hiss the most ignominious curses that I can think of. Being Italian, there are very very many.
As we neared Marbella at Cabrita Point, the sea grew ever worse. Huge gusts of wind tore across the water and sent the sails to trembling. The frantic and unpleasant motion of the waves rocked the ship hither and yon. I was stationed aboard the HMS Northumberland (these English have no imagination when it comes to names) alongside a good number of Germans and Englishmen. The two races seem to have a natural camaraderie, at least as I have seen in my own life, and they presented a united front of guttural and ugly languages that I had no desire to pierce.
Perhaps I should have been more attentive to what I was saying and who heard me. You see, I had already voided my stomach once into my hat, ruining what had been a good piece of frippery with a fine peacock feather stuck into the brim. It never failed to excite the ladies when I wore it! So, I was engaged in the dubious task of removing the feather without spilling the contents of the hat onto myself or the deck, but the ship was rolling and rocking in the shallows. So I pronounced a malediction that featured prominently the Emperor Leopold, who was, at that time, the Holy Roman Emperor. I spit out his name with as much bile as I had emptied my stomach moments before.
One of the deckhands must have been listening, for word soon reached our Leopold of whom I told you. Just as the ships rounded Cabrita Point and the French fleet became visible, I received such a knock on the back of my skull as to send my hat, plume and all, into the seas of Hercules. I was incensed, as you already wagered, and I did not stop to find out why this had occurred but rather immediately drew my poniard and spun with a speed that is the provenance of Italian fencers alone.
Leopold was at once scratched upon his forearm with my blade. It was lucky for him that my stock of funds was low, for I prefer to keep my daggers greased with venoms so that even the tiniest prick will send my enemies to hell. Not that, I fear. The giant marine was made more angry than anything else. He was barely wounded but you must know to always beware a German suffering a scratch! There are few things as dangerous in this world.
That is when the cannonade began. The Northumberland shook, this time not from the waves. Her cannons were firing broadside at the French fleet, and likewise the French back at us. The crackle of distant guns lit up the night with plumes of fire and smoke. We were thrown to our backsides as our ship was struck, but the thick stout wood of English shipmaking kept us safe. At this distance, the cannons could hardly damage the hull.
But the gale, which we had been sailing into, was of a frightful power here. Already, we could see many French ships listing away from their anchors. Several had broken free and were being blown out of the harbor, away from the battle entirely. Leake, that strange Admiral, must have been ecstatic. He ordered his ships to form into the Bull's Horns, a strategy long used by the Spanish to fight upon the Mediterranean and now being used against them by their English foes.
Northumberland was stationed in one of the prongs of the horns, far forward at the western tip of the crescent moon of ships. There was no opportunity for another long-distance cannonade, for we were now sailing straight for the French. Deck guns swiveled. I could hear shot being loaded in, that horrifying handful of leaden orbs that can scour a ship clean of life in moments. They make such a sound that I recognized it even as Leopold came at me again.
The French had the opportunity on us now to fire broadside once more at our fleet before they began to turn and maneuver. Yet, Leake had cleverly managed to pin them in the harbor, giving them precious little fighting room and cutting off those ships who had lost their anchors in the growing storm. The cannons sounded again, their roar closer, their mouths tiny gateways to a thousand tiny hells.
Leopold was stalking me over the deck when it happened. I had, with the knowledge of my own size, retreated from this hulking behemoth. I may have bested him in grace, but he was clearly my superior on the field of strength. It was, perhaps, a foolish reflex to pull my knife on him, for he had drawn his cutlass almost at once. Now there was naked steel on deck and the sailors were shouting for us to stop: soon we would be upon the French.
The cannonade smashed into our lines, but did little damage for our prows were turned towards it. Woe to the Northumberland! For a cannonball, aimed high, ripped through her fore-light and sent the lantern smashing to the deck. The most horrible of all things that can occur on board a ship happened then. The oil took light, and soon the deck was merrily ablaze.
The ship shifted heavily as the horns of our attack turned to open fire. Leopold and I listed, and I regret to say that I fell through a companionway into the lower decks. Leopold would not let me go, however, and followed after. I was luckily mostly unharmed other than some bruising and I was not dazed enough to allow that huge German brute to chop through my collarbone when he arrived. I rolled out of the way, dagger in hand, and gave him a tutelary slice to the thigh, cutting through his filthy sailor's breeches.
There was madness now at every quarter onboard the ship. The fire was spreading above, which perhaps led to the second mistake. Someone failed to reload a cannon with the aplomb that is usual amongst English sailors, and as we made ready to fire again upon the French, the entire thing detonated in its crib. Its powder supply went up along with it, and now there were two fires aboard! We hadn't even closed with the foe, and it looked as though we were in danger of sinking!
As Leopold came on, his cutlass a wind of death, I danced ever backwards, looking for escape. Where to go? Where to hide from this brutal machine of destruction? The powder magazine, yes, I could perhaps get away and hide in the magazine...
I rushed downwards, to the very belly of the ship, and there I saw the magazine door... and the wreckage of the cannon that had blown apart nearby. The fire was spreading, and with the chaos and havoc above, there was no one down here to put it out!
Leopold came after me, and I tried in my very best German to point out that if we did not resolve our differences and work together that the whole ship was in danger. He responded soberly with a point of his own—the point of his cutlass, which I had to near leap to avoid. —Damn it man! I shouted at him in, what I am sure, was badly mangled German.
—Sie verdammen mich jetzt? he howled at me, like some manner of mad ape.
I shrugged and, at last, drew my own epée. I could see this was a duel to the death, whether that death was from a sword-thrust, a cut to the brain, or the premature ascension of the entire ship and her passengers to the heavenly realms borne on powder-fumes. That is when the duel started in true.